For something different this time around, I figured that instead of giving you guys an occasionally long non-sequitur that leads to the topic you’ve already guessed from the title above, I thought we could play a quick guessing game. How it works is that I give you the description of a popular game character and then you have to guess who I’m talking about before you scroll down to find the answer. No cheating for you, you cheaty cheaterson. The prize for getting it correct will be the smug satisfaction in the fact that you beat a guessing game put on the internet by a 20-something year old who didn’t think it through very clearly.
Now that we’re clear, here’s character number 1!
He’s an everyman treasure hunter. He is a determined and brave, if somewhat brash, adrenaline junkie who could be considered a remorseless killer, even if it is mostly for self-defence. Despite this, he still cares a lot about people, remaining a loyal friend to those he cares about and even trying to offer help to those who were previously trying to kill him.
Pause for thinking time!
And the answer was…
Nathan Drake from the Uncharted Series!
Alright, here’s character number 2!
She’s a confident, determined and brutal woman with a fairly sadistic fighting style. She prefers to fight her enemies rather than talk to them, and gets incredibly impatient when they decide to monologue. She steers right into her sexuality at every pass, enjoying using it as a means to an end in a lot of situations to mess with the people around her and the enemies she faces. While seemingly callous and nonchalant when it comes to her friends, in reality she not only cares deeply for them but is also incredibly devoted to protecting their well-being.
That’s right it’s…
Bayonetta from the creatively titled Bayonetta series!
Before we continue on, I’m guessing that you’re probably getting the idea of what I’m getting at with this poorly put together guessing game. Well you may think that I’m getting the descriptions of these characters from either their in-game dialogue or their respective game’s Wikipedia article; but that’s not actually the case. These descriptions of these characters came from what I interpreted from their actions in-game, both in and out of the player’s control, because it is actions that define characters. I totally understand if you think I’m talking out of my ass with that idea, especially when it comes to a medium that doesn’t always care about building characters and stories.
But let’s have one more round of our game so that I can explain my point a little better. Here’s character number 3!
This character is a woman who has chosen a dangerous career in bounty hunting. She prefers to work on her own and has proven herself to be capable of storming heavily defended bases and strongholds single-handedly on multiple occasions. She has access to, experience with and has working knowledge of enormous firepower, quickly adapting to new pieces she finds. And yet, despite being a one-woman walking tank, she also has a softer side to her, possibly even a maternal one.
Yup, Samus from Nintendo’s Metroid series. A character of few words with very little backstory who appears in games with maybe a few cutscenes surrounding her character, if there are any at all. And yet we can still determine this from her in-game actions.
Besides her full working knowledge of how to effectively operate her Power Suit, she quickly learns how to use every in-game weapon and gadget she finds. She never appears in games with some kind of a fighting companion and every level in every Metroid game is a testament to her ability to tear through hostile bases and fortresses, and wreck shit on a regular basis. And finally, her interactions with the baby Metroid on multiple occasions show a softer side as she cares for well-being of the tiny brainsuckling life-form.
This brings me to the point of just how important the actions of characters are in games. As I said earlier, it’s a character’s actions that ultimately define them to an audience as a good character or a poor character. It’s these actions that let us know that Link is a brave, selfless and intelligent hero who is willing to go toe-to-toe with horrid if not enormous monsters to save the land. They show us that Luigi, despite being the cowardly and reluctant half of the Mario brothers, can step up to the challenge and kick some ass if he needs to. And it’s also one of the reasons a lot of people dislike Metroid: Other M, portraying a version of Samus who’s bafflingly illogical and out of character actions left her looking denser than a double chocolate bacon milkshake.
I think my current go-to example for how character actions in a game can make a bad and/or unlikable character is Aiden Pearce from Watch_Dogs. He’s a character that, due to a befuddling lack of personality, forces the player to focus on his actions in order to take away any information about him, and none of said information is remotely appealing to the audience. Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand what Ubisoft wanted to portray Aiden as; an anti-hero vigilante plagued by guilt and seeking redemption via revenge against the people who caused the wrongful death of his niece. But the character that they ended up portraying through Aiden’s actions via cutscenes and the game’s mechanics was not even remotely close to that.
Here’s the short and sweet version of the character we get from Aiden Pearce’s actions throughout the story of Watch_Dogs: Aiden Pearce is a psychopathic braying jackass who doesn’t deserve an iota of redemption for the things he has done. He was a criminal hacker who would do any work for hire and steal from people’s bank accounts who ended up stealing from powerful people, resulting in the death of his niece during an attempt on his life. In the wake of this tragedy, Aiden swears that he will clean up the corruption in his city and get his revenge against those responsible for the death of his niece by…continuing to be a criminal hacker who would do any work for hire, steal from people’s bank accounts and possibly fighting crime in-between if he can be fucked. While he claims to be a vigilante who is watching over his city and protecting the innocent, he spends a majority of the game stealing cars and money from innocent people, causing property damage and killing policemen who are just doing their jobs trying to catch Aiden because he is a very obvious criminal. He is a character who deserves no redemption for his actions because he is still doing the exact things that lead to the death of a family member. He is the very thing that he claims he is trying to protect “his city” from.
Watch_Dogs is a great example to show game developers that when it comes to game design, the actions that the player character does through both the game’s mechanics and cutscenes should match up with the way that they want their protagonists to be portrayed. When it’s done wrong, we get unlikable scumbags like Aiden Pearce and Kratos from every God of War game that came after the first. However when it’s done right, we get characters like Red from Transistor, a badass woman who, while also on a quest for vengeance against those who have wronged her, is shown through her actions throughout the game that she is clearly a caring and loving person who knows when a vendetta needs to put aside for the greater good.
The idiom “actions speak louder than words” has become integral to the portrayal of characters in books and films. As such, there is absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t be just as integral to the portrayal of characters in video games.
Are you ready, players?